Falling in love with Love (2)

 This post is a follow-up on the previous one.  It is an updated version of a number of tentative responses which I had made to comments on my last blog.  In this regard I am indebted to Terry Sissons and Bob Willis for their comprehension, insights, focus  and clarity of expression. Putting my response into a post is intended to open the discussion to all. 

 I might feel personally committed to loving Love as the very condition of possibility of loving a real-life human being in their full reality.   I recognize, however, that there are many people who have people that they love, but who do not “love Love.”  They have other priorities in life.  I have also observed that these people do NOT shrivel up and die, and in many cases seem to thrive or at least to be no worse off than those of us who have chosen the more “mystical” approach to human community.

 And “community” is ultimately the issue: how human organisms interpret the “species-thing” which spawns them, by which they survive and in which they remain immersed all their lives.  My view here runs directly contrary to the radical individualism which often functions unchallenged in the imagery we have of ourselves. 

Individualism imagines that belonging to human society is like being the member of a club or a tenant in an apartment building or a homeowner in a residential neighborhood.  Individuals here are the primary reality; the aggregate, such as it is, is secondary.  The “club-member” image leaves out the pre-emptive and homogenizing power of culture and the metaphysical depth at which it organizes its community.  The analogy I would use instead is that of the many-headed hydra.  This mythological animal is one organism with many heads, all of whom identify with who they are.  The one organism is the cultural community, and the many heads are the so-called “individuals” who comprise it and work together for its survival and advancement.  The real “community” to which we belong is primary: it determines who we think we are and how we think we should live.

Analogies, like all metaphors, are not meant to be taken literally.  The “hydra” imagery is designed to force the imagination to be more aware of the dominant and perduring role of the cultural community — the locus of that set of virtualities created to direct the behaviors of rational organisms, filling the gaps left by the loss of instinctual directedness.  Society and its behavioral imperatives are the result.  They are fictions … but they are fictions that run our lives.  They may even be subconscious but they rule us and we obey them.  We can separate from them, but only with great difficulty, and only if we are absorbed into another commu­nity.  The image of the many-headed hydra is meant to disabuse us of any thought that we are absolutely independent individuals who can function outside of a cultural community. 

 In the area of “love” there are two false assumptions that I am challenging.  One is that “love” as we understand it, is a stand-alone pre-existing “thing,” a physical or metaphysical reality, a “person”(“God”), the ground of being and therefore the very meaning of existence.  And two, as a consequence, that the value choices (those virtualities that comprise culture) which run counter to that reality are anti-human and sooner or later will turn their adherents into dysfunctional self-centered idiopaths incapable of any socially constructive human interaction.

 In contrast I am saying that the whole enchilada is our choice.  That there is some pre-existing metaphysical reality beyond human survival that constrains our choices is a myth that almost by necessity accompanies every culture’s self-projection.  It is the primary mechanism for generating confidence in the common vision and its required behavior.  We have changed our social self-definition in the past, and may be in the process of changing it again.  Once those cultural shifts are made — and they take a very long time to complete — people live and thrive (or “shrivel”) based on the standards set by those conventional norms not in terms of some pre-existing metaphysical or physical reality.  In other words, cultural norms are typically projected as “absolute and objective,” but they are in fact all relative and collectively subjective.  They are created by the human community. 

 So, to apply this to our examples, human interaction as only sex or the maternal instinct (physical realities), or the “love” that is claimed to have spawned them (metaphysical-religious “realities”), potentially can be replaced by some other determinant.  We have all had experience of people who have chosen to live by priorities other than physical or metaphysical “love” — like those who identify authentic human achievement exclusively with the accumulation of goods, or the acquisition of social prestige — and while we may demur at their priorities, and complain that their beliefs work to the detriment of others, we know that they can be quite content conforming to their chosen set of values and lead satisfied lives.  They pursue their beliefs in good faith.  They do not become social pariahs; they are polite neighbors, law-abiding citizens and reliable in business.  We can easily project a future in which an entire society thinks along the same lines forcing all the heads of the hydra to agree and strive to conform to them or risk shriveling through social defeat.  Such a culture is not unimaginable at all.

 Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol illustrates the confrontation of two sets of such “values” which, over a long period of time, can coalesce into a “culture.”  Dickens was obviously opting for “love” and as an artist sought to construct a narrative that would move his readers to make the “right” choices.  If today I find the unconverted Ebenezer Scrooge an unsavory character, it may be mostly due to Dickens’ artistry.  There is nothing to prevent Scrooge’s values from dominating an entire culture, and indeed, many feel that they have.  Human commu­nity can be ruled by the elevation of conspicuous consumption into a transcendent value, determining worthy partners for reproduction and whether an individual will have enough self-esteem to live a psychologically healthy lifeIn fact, there is nothing to prevent such attitudes from dominating everyone on the planet, rich and poor, western, eastern, northern, southern, first world, third world, each with a social and psychological fallout that correspon­ded to their relative situation.

 What I’m saying is that if we want “love” to rule, and that means with all its egalitarian, generous and non-calculating implications, we have to fall in love with it.  “Love” can become a “reality” only through human loving.  “Love” is an exclusively human phenome­non; there was no such thing as “love” before we appeared, and it definitely was not the primordial condition of the universe of matter from which we have evolved.  If we don’t create love, it won’t exist.  We have to choose it, commit to it and support one another in the effort, for there is no other force or entity in the universe to guarantee its existence.   

 Psychopathic cultures?

 I recently saw “The Pianist,” a movie about the Jewish experience in the Warsaw Ghetto under the Nazis.  I see the Nazi phenomenon as paradigmatic of so-called “dysfunctional” cultural choices — Nazi culture was psychopathic.  My view is contrary to the claim, however, that “life and love are identical” … and hence the conclusion which follows from those premises, that a culture built in the absence of love, like the Nazi, will die out.  I wish it were true.  But if Germany had won the war, the world would have acculturated to those values.

 I used to think “love” was our “very being.”  But I no longer agree that we are dealing with a physical or metaphysical identity here.  It is a cultural choice.  That means that, just like individual psychopaths, psychopathic cultures like the Nazi can exist, and entire populations can live by them, however dysfunctionally, for a very long time — as long as any culture.  I think that it’s better when life and love are identical and I personally strive to make them identical, but I am persuaded that the primacy of “love” is a virtual truth — human wisdom — and not a metaphysical truth.  It’s a choice.  A metaphysical truth would make it a necessity, and we would literally die without it.  As it is we do not die, we live on in pain and inflict pain on others.

 In our current situation the only thing that will stop the cultural madness that we call “modern civilization” is an ecological mistake so irreversible as to end the possibility of life on earth for the human species.  Barring that, it seems that no amount of sado-masochis­tic self-destructive behavior — war, genocide, economic exploitation, social injustice, environmental pollution —  can stop us … nothing we do morally or spiritually will result in our dying out as a species.  Like Macbeth, we can “creep in this petty pace from day to day, until the last syllable of recorded time.”  That we didn’t all just die after what we did to one another in WWII, from Nanking to Auschwitz to Leningrad to Dresden and Hiroshima, is proof enough of that.

 Why is this point worth making?  Is this just another metaphysical quibble on my part?  Why not simply declare that a loving life is “better” and that without it life is impoverished?  I too believe the practical side of this question is the most important, but I believe we have to face our inescapable responsibility.  We can’t afford to deceive ourselves.  We have no marching orders from the Universe.  Love is OUR chosen project.  There was no such thing as “love” as we know it before we came along.  It is our invention, our creation.  There is no one to teach us how to do it; and nothing can help us do it but ourselves.  The “love” that we are in love with is part of our self-embrace.  It is not what we are but rather whom we may choose to be.

 We even assemble the cultural weapons we use to fight this fight, they are ours: our artistry, our poetry, our myths, our religion.  The very fact that every culture claims some pre-existing metaphysical bedrock for its projected vision is, ironically, part of the deception.  It’s one of the fictions we use to help us keep going.  But there is no “love” (as we know and define it) at the heart of the universe.  Any “love” that we recognize as human comes exclusively from human beings.  The “God of Love” is our creation, our projection, our fictional narrative, our “Christmas Carol.”  It is we who make the material universe sacred by loving it … by accepting it as it is, and ourselves as we are — its progeny. 

 Little by little … over unimaginable eons of time … starting even before our eukaryotic single-celled ancestors first invented sexual reproduction, we, matter’s energy, have made ourselves into these bodies of ours.  We, matter’s energy now in human form, use these inherited bodies for our own purposes.  This is our work driven by a material energy which we increasingly manage and direct.

Matter’s energy is “LIFE.”  LIFE is from the beginning.  We would not be here without it.  There is no way we can avoid seeing our dynamic source, matter’s energy, LIFE, as an abundant, uncalculating magnanimity … a profligate limitless generosity and endless availability.  There is a correspondence between what must appear to us as the “unselfish” energy of LIFE and what we call “love.”  We have discovered a paradox: that it is universally fulfilling to imitate in our own relationships the almost infinite self-emptying self-donation that is characteristic of the roiling pool of dynamism — LIFE — that evolved us.  “Love” is how we express, in our terms and in the context of the relationships that sustain us, the limitless universal availability of matter’s energy — LIFE. 

 “Love” is the human expression of LIFE.  Through our choices the self-donation of LIFE stops being unconscious, unspecified, unfocused.  We humans as rational self-disposing, symbol-making organisms, can embrace LIFE as ours; we can appropriate it, make it our project and express it as “love.”  We can choose it.

 It’s a very wise choice … but it is a choice.

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Falling in Love with Love

Falling in Love with Love is an old song that most of us are familiar withIt was originally written for a Rodgers and Hart musical in 1938 and made into a movie in 1940.  It was incorporated into the 1957 TV musical Cinderella, reproduced in 1965 and 1997.  Sinatra sang it in 1961.  A Broadway production of Cinderella, still with the same song, is scheduled for early 2013.  With such a history, you could say it’s on the verge of becoming a classic:

Falling in Love with Love is falling for make-believe!
Falling in Love with Love is playing the fool!
Caring too much is such a juvenile fancy!
Learning to trust is just for children in school.

There is a cynical thrust to these lyrics, but it has been interpreted in two different ways.  One simply disregards the apparent contrast of the two senses of “love” and the song is taken to mean that falling in love is “make-believe,” an illusion.  The other, more complex, seems to be challenging those romantics who are not only in love with the person who is the object of their affection, but also with the idea of love as a kind of platonic abstraction, an end in itself.  In this form it evokes the mediaeval troubadours who sang of courtly love as something to be pursued for its own sake, reducing to the absolute minimum any of the personal and interpersonal realities that would make the relationship a serious human challenge.  Such a “love” could certainly be said to qualify as “illusion.”  And as it played out in practice, the “lady” in question (the pursuer was always the knightly male) was usually someone seriously (conveniently?) out of reach.  The illusion was to be in love with “love” but not with a real human being.

But I am inclined to say that you cannot really love a real human being unless you fall in love with love. 

The marrow of the thesis is reality — human imperfection and the ephemeral nature of our feelings.  I realize that statement is seriously deficient by reason of overgeneralization.  It is a euphemism for all those things — near infinite in number and category — that make love difficult and sometimes impossible. 

We are in the realm of “romantic love” here, and the context implies a high degree of emotionality fueled by the involuntary impulses — feelings — that arise from the human organism.  Sexuality isn’t the only operator, though many would argue that if attraction is present the sexual dimension cannot be entirely absent.  Be that as it may, human interests other than sex often dominate the phenomenon, at least at the conscious level.  They are all quite involuntary and grounded in organic functions.  There are, for example, the maternal-paternal instinct, the bonding of the hunting band, the cooperative instinct, the esthetic reaction, the reaching out of the desperately needy, the childhood-dependency reaction.  These and many others are all instinctual spontaneities that provide the energy and initial focus for love.  Every one of them, and here I include the sexual, can be derailed by things that deactivate the feelings that happen to be in play in any given situation.  To whatever degree love was dependent on these forces, negative factors can inhibit or even nullify it.  

Hence, it has been the perennial opinion of mature humankind that If love is to endure, it cannot be totally identified with these organic instincts; they are too unreliable.  They are not illusion; but while it is probable that love cannot arise without them, it must somehow also transcend them and be able to function in their absence.  What causes love to endure — the “love” we are in love with — must reside at a deeper level. 

I realize at this point, I have not yet asked what love is.  It’s not an easy question to answer.  We feel sure we know what we mean by it even though it is most likely different for each one of us.  But however subjective it might be, no one for a moment will allow that it lacks objectivity.  If there is one thing indubitably true about humans it is that we know and appreciate “love.”  Love is what we’re after.  Human society itself is built on families, that means every individual came from a sexual love relationship and a long period of loving care through childhood.  And sexual love and family also seems to be the natural fulfillment of the individual.  Love is probably the single most important word and concept for humankind.  How could the one thing in life that we all agree is the desideratum above all others not be objective?  How could it be possible that we do not know — and all agree — on what it is?

Yet, it seems impossible to define.  We sometimes try by using “other words,” like “benevolence,” but they have no more explanatory power than “love.”  “Love” may be to be one of those things they call qualia: exclusively subjective objects of experience, like colors.  How do you define “red” in other words?  You can’t.  When Socrates confronted his interlocutors with a similar problem regarding “justice,” in their perplexity they sought recourse in an example: “the gods are just,” they said.  But to say that “God is love,” as our religious tradition does, is no solution, for now we have two words that are undefined.

Some say we don’t need words.  We know love when we see it, and we see it from inside; the definition is secondary anyway.  If I even consider defining it, it’s because I have loved and I have been loved.  Definition follows experience, not the other way around.  Despite Socrates’ displeasure with the poets whose words he found confusing and irrational, the poets are the only ones who seem confident in what they say about love.  But, the poets’ words only make sense to those who can confirm them.  That means we are still confined to the subjective.

Why this obsession?

But rather than try to describe what it’s like to love, which will be very personal to each individual in any case, perhaps it would be more fruitful to look at what grounds loveWhy does love dominate our lives?  What is it about us that explains this obsession? 

Some, inspired by Sigmund Freud, are convinced that the key to understanding ourselves and why we love love is our sexuality.  But in this regard Freud’s view expanded over the course of his life and he came to see sexuality in a much larger context.  The sexual drive, he said, was just one facet of an overriding passion of all organisms, including the human organism, to live.  He called it Eros.  Eros for him was the very definition of life.  Sex was only a subset; all organisms are driven to reproduce themselves as an essential part of being alive and staying alive

He wasn’t the first thinker to move in this direction.  Schopenhauer in the early 1800’s used the word “Will” and said it was the foundational characteristic not only of animal organisms like ours but of all reality living or not.  Spinoza in the late 1600’s called it the conatus, the instinct for self preservation — the involuntary need to continue to exist implanted in all things (not just living things).  He explained it by saying that everything is an emanation of Being itself, and the conatus is the echo of that provenance.  Being was “God;” it had to exist.  But Spinoza recognized that “God” had to be “an extended thing,” the ground and source of matter, hence everything material that emanates from it — like us — is characterized by the same drive: we are driven to exist by our very bodies, by the very organic matter of which we are made. 

We love being-here and we love being what and who we are.  Whether you call it Eros, Will, or conatus, it explains a lot of things.  It explains our instinct for survival.  It explains everything we do, positive and negative: why we tend to put ourselves first … our greed and selfishness.  It also explains why we promote our own people and our children even if it means we diminish, because we identify ourselves with them and our bodies insist on expanding the species.  That’s why the sex drive is so insistent.  The body rules.  If we happen to fall into a coma, the organism pushes on without our conscious consent; even if we want to stop existing, our bodies put up a fierce resistance: it is not easy to kill yourself.  These drives arise from the matter of which we are made.  They are natural because Nature is the energy of existence.  The very urges and instincts that earlier we recognized as the engines of love are born of our thirst to be-here, the existential energy of matter.  Self-love derives directly from the self-embrace of material existence.  We love ourselves because we can’t help it.  It’s embedded in our bones.  We are in love with being-here … that is the ground of it all.  Aristotle, writing 350 years before the common era, said it famously: “friendship towards another arises from friendship towards oneself.”

The remainder then, the transcen­dent element we were looking for is here, in our understanding.  Our rational consciousness gives us the capacity to look at our urges without being under their control.  But while understanding is not driven by these urges, it is not separate from them either.  Understanding is the body’s self-aware­ness.  Because we understand love — its origins and its ground in our organisms — we can direct it: we can reinforce it; we can embellish and adorn it; we can surround it with cultural significance and use it to symbolize who we have decided we want to be.  We make it work for us.  And we do that not by creating some new tool, but by elevating what we already possess into a symbol that then works to construct our social reality.  Our obsession with love is who we think we are as a species.

Similar to the way we take the organic urge to eat and transcendentalize it with our savory recipes and ingenious combinations of food and drink and then set it as the cultural center-piece of our family-love so that “feeding” is transformed into a meal, a banquet, a feast, a symbol of our sharing with one another and the joy of life, … so too we take “love” in all its manifestations as driven by all our various urges and clothe it with cultural adornments so that it serves to symbolize and thus enhance who we think we are.  To say it another way, we use it as a symbol for what we have decided we want to be.

If we are “in love with love” it’s because we have chosen to understand what being-here — our organic urges, the Eros of life, existence — means to us.  We have interpreted life as family-love.  But I want to be clear about this.  It’s a cultural choice.  These are virtual realities created by our symbol making power.  There is nothing set in stone here.  There is no obligation.  We are not even bound to family love as we have known it.  Reproduction and child rearing, as Plato suggested millennia ago in The Republic, could conceivably be socialized by the State.  To reproduce by family love and to use sexuality as its natural symbol is a primaeval choice of our ancient ancestors.  It determined the direction of our pre-historic social-biological evolution.   Our sex-orientated bodies were molded by those choices.

Not everyone has continued to understand life in that way, however.  For a thousand years the Roman Church by requiring celibacy of its dedicated servants has tried to separate love from its natural origins in sexuality and family life.  And ironically that same Church today condemns homosexuals seeking family love on the grounds that they cannot reproduce sexually.  There is apparently no end to what we may imagine ourselves to be.  There is nothing to prevent us from reinterpreting existence and the meaning of Eros in terms other than love.  What a change of that magnitude would eventually do to us is anyone’s guess. 

The song that began our reflections, written a year before the outbreak of WWII, ends in prophetic disillusionment:

I fell in love with love one night when the moon was full
I wasn’t wise with eyes unable to see
I fell in love with love with love ever after
But love fell out with me.

That final line is not set in stone either.  We might wish, and may even imagine, that the issue was settled long ago … that we didn’t have the burden of choice in this matter.  But we do.  To love we must choose to love.

The Religiosity of the People

by Tony Equale

In a scene from the movie “The Way,” a grieving father played by Martin Sheen stands in awed silence at mass at the shrine of Santiago de Compostela in Northwestern Spain as four men fire up an immense thurible hanging from the rafters and then swing it pouring out clouds of aromatic smoke through the cavernous church.   I think it’s fairly correct to say that none of the people present at that event, their hearts swelling with the sense of the sacred evoked by the smell of incense, were aware of the origins of the practice. 

The use of incense derived from its function at the live sacrifices offered to the gods of the pre-Christian mediterranean world — Jupiter, Athena, Isis, Mithra — in order to cover the stench of blood and the rotting remains of slaughtered animals.  Even in those days when incense served a very practical purpose, its association with the prayer and self-surrender of sacrifice gave it the unique power to evoke the numinous.  Early in the 4th century, when Christians were given the task by the Roman Empire of replacing the official “state religion” with their own, they modeled their rituals on the liturgies that were the established state functions they were required to maintain.  Placating whatever divinity was responsible for Rome’s ascendency and security was an unwavering responsibility regardless of what religion was entrusted to carry it out.

Many features of what became standard Catholic ritual assumed their character from the pagan liturgies they had to replace.  The transformation of the eucharistic supper into the “sacrifice of the mass” is the prime example.  What had originally been a shared meal of equal participants seated around a common table, was converted after the Roman “promotion” into a stylized dramatic event performed by one man, facing an “altar,” conspicuously set apart from and with his back to the people, reciting preset formularies and offering a “sacrifice” designed to so “please God” that it would guarantee that punishment would be averted, requests met and prayers answered.  It is entirely plausible that the official trappings were so thoroughly preserved in the transition that an uninformed worshipper of the former gods, paying a random visit to a temple service obscured by clouds of incense, would not even have noticed that there had been a “change of gods” and of religion. 

Religion is “contact”

The social phenomenon we know as “religion” is contact — contact with “God.”  This “contact” is mediated by the affective attitudes, rituals and prayer practices that concretize the relationship of its members, collectively and individually, to the source of their being and well-being.  The keynote and ground of religious contact is prayer and ritual practice.  These practical expressions are the central reality of religion.  They reveal what the people think “God” is, how they think they are related (to “him” or “her” or “it”), and what they expect to get from contact.  Their expectations are based on what they believe “God” can and is willing to do … and why.  We will return to all these essentials of religious contact shortly, but right now I want to introduce the second, derivative face of religion: its theoretical justification also known as creed and theology. 

In this second step, speculative and theoretical systems — theology — are devised for the purpose of explaining why the contact-practice in question makes sense.  It’s important to grasp this relationship.  Practice is primary; secondary reflection (resulting in creeds and moral codes and their justifications) is derivative.  We can see this functioning in our example of the Catholic mass.  The very notion that the death of Jesus was a “sacrifice” offered for the “redemption” of the world was not an aboriginal Christian belief but rather a subsequent development derived from the ritual practice of the “sacrifice of the mass.”  This way of looking at things might seem to reverse the order of understanding we are accustomed to, but it reflects the real sequence of events and their causes. 

Certainly, we can find allusions to Jesus’ death as “sacrifice” scattered here and there in the NT, and many of the prophetic passages of the OT that inspired the early followers of Jesus suggested the “redemptive” effect of suffering.  But such a notion was not even a formal belief, much less the dominant theme of the early Christian kerygma.  The Roman Catholic theology of “redemption by sacrifice” was actually a later collage which integrated into a coherent doctrine a number of disparate elements selected from what was by then a three hundred year old corpus of Christian beliefs.  Its purpose was to generate a world­view that would support the new Roman Catholic “sacrifice of the mass” which replaced the old Roman pagan ritual.  In the final analysis that meant that Catholic soteriology — the theology of redemption — was basically designed to explain the rituals, prayer practice and religious attitudes of mediterranean polytheistic worshippers in the centuries leading up to the common era.   I say it that way because in reality, Catholic theology emanated from the religiosity of the Roman people supposedly “converted” from paganism to Christianity by edict of the emperor; the real “conversion,” however, was actually going on in the opposite direction.  Christianity, pressed into service by the empire became “Catholic;” it found itself obliged to conform in ritual and prayer — the terms of “contact” — to the norms of Greco-Roman polytheistic paganism.  Catholic “theology,” and from there “creeds and codes,” were secondary and reflected that foundational conformation.

An inversion of values

This dynamic of “the primacy of practice over theory” led to a profound inversion of theological values within Christianity.  It occurred throughout the entire Christian system but we can see it playing itself out most clearly in the evolution of the Catholic “mass.”  Starting with the memorial meal of the gospels, the acceptance of Catholic employment as the official Roman state religion turned the eucharist into the imitation of a pagan animal sacrifice, something very different from a shared meal.  The prayer attitudes and relational imagery of each kind of ritual are poles apart — definitely contrary and perhaps even contradictory to one another.  The meal , any meal where a number of people eat together, is a natural symbol of human community.  A memorial meal, in addition, grounds that community in the person being memorialized who in this case is Jesus himself, presented in the gospels as the very food to be eaten, the bond that holds all together.  That such a community action is then called “eucharistía,” thanksgiving, highlights the religiously radical nature of the earliest Christian communities.  The original Christian eucharist embodied the kind of “contact with God” promoted by Jesus himself as a creative reform and development of Judaism.  “God,” in this conception is not “God” as we thought he was.  This “God” is not like any other god.  It suggests that “God” as most people conceive the term, does not exist.  Jesus’ “God” is “Love” — specifically human love: the love we have for one another.  It is our sharing and mutual support that, through the binding power of Jesus’ love and vision, binds us all — makes contact —with “God.”  Please notice: there is no notion of “divine omnipotence,” “appeasement,” “placating” an angry potentate, no begging for favors, no appeal for forgiveness or fear of punishment.  What is evoked by the shared meal is human community.  That is the invitation of Jesus … that is contact with “God.” 

A sacrifice offered to the “gods,” on the other hand, does not evoke the interpersonal interaction and mutual sharing symbolized by a meal.  In an animal sacrifice, yes, there is also a group of people, and they also eat of what is sacrificed, but the focus is entirely on “placating” the powerful and potentially dangerous “god” whose apparently bloodthirsty needs are being met by the slaughter of the animal.  The grotesque practice itself implies a number of things about “God” that are at least contrary to the belief system promoted by Jesus and his original followers, and more likely utterly incoherent from any human point of view.  Let me explain.

First it implies that “God” answers prayers.  That means that “he” can (or wants to) have his mind changed by human intervention.  He must be a “god” whom you must imagine either doesn’t know what you need — and receives new information from those praying to him, and can be persuaded by their prayers — or doesn’t care and can be made to care by a rhetorical plea that moves his heart and convinces him why his intervention is the only option left for the solution of your problem.  In all these cases you must imagine a “god” who is more powerful … but less intelligent … than we are. 

The practice of animal sacrifice also assumes that “god” has some sort of need for blood or to have living things die.  This is quite incoherent.  The only rational explanation for such a belief must come from the primitive days of humankind’s history when it was thought that the “gods” lived on meat as we do, and that the burning of slaughtered animals turned carcasses into smoke which then rose into the heavens making the meat available to the “gods.”  Even granting the expression of gratitude implied in libations and offerings of the first fruits and first born, why would our ancestors have ever thought that these things had to die and be burned unless they assumed that “god” lived in the skies and was literally fed by them through the fire and rising smoke. 

All this would have been considered quite primitive even by the standards of a philosophically educated  Greco Roman of the fourth century of the common era.  The fact that the Catholic Church embraced this entire panoply of attitudes wholesale and reconfigured its own rituals and liturgies in order to preserve their character is a clear indication of how seriously it embraced the role assigned to it by the empire.  The job of the Catholic (“Imperial”) religion was to make public display of the continuity of the accustomed piety of the Roman state.  The Catholic liturgy was an official theater designed to communicate to the people that the state was faithful to the gods and there was every reason to expect that the gods would continue their support.  It was primarily for the benefit of the little people who are thus reassured that their obedience to the authorities pleases “God” and if it doesn’t always guarantee favors, it is at least an investment in preventing disaster, natural and otherwise; it was worth the effort.

That the Roman liturgy came to be frozen in time with these features is standing proof that the Catholic Church did not attempt to change the pagan Roman population.  Rather it changed itself, first in its rituals and formulary prayers, chanted in the temples and basilicas in imitation of the pagan rites it replaced, and then in the entire theological justification for its practices. The end result of this metamorphosis was the preservation and maintenance of the religious attitudes, prayer-forms, assumptions and moral posture of the Greco-Roman world, superficially clothed in the outward trappings of the Imperial Catholic Church, and the nearly total suppression of the religious innovations introduced by Jesus and his immediate followers.  Greco Roman Christianity fundamentally disregarded Jesus’ “Way” of “making contact”and replaced it with a superficially Christianized version of the multimillennial religion of the pantheon of the pagan gods of the mediterranean basin.

Augustine’s way

In religion, “making contact” comes first.  “Theory” which includes all the intellectualized and verbalized aspects of religion, follows practice.  Here are a few cases in point.

Augustine was a Roman Catholic theologian who began writing at the end of the 4th century and produced his most important work in the first decades of the 5th.  Catholicism was officially proclaimed the state religion of Rome in 380 but it had functioned de facto as the religion of the emperors and the empire since Constantine’s legitimation of Christianity in 312.  So, it was almost a hundred years later that Augustine developed his theories about original sin and the effect of baptism in eradicating it. 

The practice of infant baptism had become routine in the Catholic Church, and Augustine’s theology was an attempt to explain and justify it.  The people believed that without baptism the “soul” went to hell, so to be on the safe side they baptized their children as early in life as possible.  This condemnation to hell must also include the innocent, Augustine reasoned, for if personal guilt were the only cause of damnation there would be no need to baptize infants.  That means we must be dealing with a natural order and a human nature that is so intrinsically corrupt and a “God” who is so implacably enraged that everyone, good or bad, is condemned; baptism and the sacraments, then, are absolutely necessary for salvation.  “Being good is not good enough,” Augustine would say, “outside the church there is no salvation.”  Augustine’s explanations were directed at making sense of an age old practice.  There is nothing unusual here.  He was following the religiosity of the people.  That’s the way religion works.

But the story doesn’t end there.  The theory of redemption that saw Jesus’ death as a sacrifice offered to the Father fit in perfectly with Augustine’s explanation for infant baptism.  There was a reason why “God” was so enraged that he would send infants to hell, it was Original Sin;  and the death of Jesus, the “son” of “God,” dying in our place, paying the price we owed “God” for Original Sin, saved us from a condemnation we all deserved.  We “make contact” for salvation by joining the Church and being liberated by baptism and the sacaments from our intrinsic corruption.  A tidy package indeed, and all of it an after-the-fact explanation designed to justify practice.

By Augustine’s time the Roman mass was, as we have seen, a radically revised ritualization, using the words of the last supper but completely supressing any hint of a shared meal.  These modifications emphasized the eucharist’s new role as the “sacrifice” that the people were used to.  Augustine’s theory of redemption not only served as backdrop for explaining infant baptism, it explained why the mass was a “sacrifice” and therefore why it was such a perfect replacement for the liturgies of the old gods and godesses of Rome.  But in so doing, he provided a theological justification for maintaining an imagery about “God” that was at complete variance with the imagery offered by Jesus.  Augustine’s “God” was like the old gods of Rome; they were like petulant children, small and pusillanimous, vengeful and unforgiving, always ready to have a tantrum if they weren’t treated with the “honor” that they deserved; they required constant attention.  Making “contact” was always kind of “iffy;” you never knew if they would be “pleased” or not.  If disaster struck in some form, personal or political or natural, you knew you had done something wrong and you’d better find out what it was and quick!  It was a high-maintenance relationship, and Augustine made it all make sense.  His work ensured that Jesus’ message would be drowned out in the din of things as they were.

Jesus’ ”God,” to the contrary, was low-maintenance.  He was not thin-skinned and easily offended requiring constant flattery.  He was a huge, generous and forgiving “God.”  He loved us without measure and without alteration.  He was the “only” god and quite secure in his divinity, thank you.  He was our “Father,” he was LIFE, he was archē, “from the beginning.”  He forgives sins and forgets about punishments.  He rushes to meet us when we are still far off, welcoming us home; he binds our wounds when we have fallen among thieves, he clothes us with the splendor of kings and weeps for every sparrow that falls from the sky.  These are all poetic images generated by Jesus to describe his “Father;” they were completely contrary to the “God” of sacrifice.  In fact, Jesus’ Jewish “God” long ago had announced very clearly and unmistakably that he did not care about sacrifice at all.  If you wanted to “make contact” with him, he said, what he asked was that you love him and love one another.  It was entirely consistent with Jesus’ “theology” that sharing a meal which symbolized our love for one another — imitating the way “God” loves us — would be the kind of ritual that would “make contact” with our “Father.”  This is not the “God” Augustine found implied and imagined in the ritual practices of Roman Catholicism; and in his rush to justify the ecclesiastical status quo Augustine’s theology institutionalized it for more than a thousand years. 

micro to macro

In the case of the Roman mass, we can see how a political accomodation, perhaps one even considered ad hoc and temporary at the time, can become institutionalized and historically set in sacred stone and take on the character of eternal and immutable reality.  Part of that process of institutionalization is accomplished by providing theoretical justification for current practice.  Current practice must change first.  Ordinary people, deciding to use a simple mindfully wrought meal as the means of “contact,” can provide a new way to express a common religiosity.  And there’s no telling where that will go.